Will his political career top his basketball one? (AP)
"I can give you a data sheet that will show you we've got several [unions] with less than 100 people, and each one of them has a president that's paid by the city to negotiate against the city."
"Coming from the private sector, I find that insane."
Mayor Dave Bing has one of the toughest jobs in the country, and he's pulling no punches. In an interview with the Wall St. Journal, he clearly understands the realities Detroit faces; and he is fed up with the control unions have.
Bing lays out his plan for the city: Cut the budget by 20%, force union workers to take a pay cut (something non-unionized workers did long ago), mandatory furloughs, and, most importantly, a change of mindset. "We've been paralyzed by a culture in the city of Detroit, and maybe the state of Michigan, of entitlement," he explains. "Our people, I don't believe, truly understand how dire the situation is."
But if Bing gets his way, they soon will.
The mayor is quick to explain, however, that he is not anti-union. He joined the NBA players association in the late 1960s and hired a mostly unionized workforce at his firm, Bing Steel. But things are much much worse in Detroit.
"The problem for the most part," he argues, "is poor union leadership. I think the rank-and-file aren't being told the truth. And I'm not going to B.S. anybody. I'm going to tell them the truth. They can't continue to ride this gravy train forever."
He poses this question to the city workforce: "Are you better off having a job and making 90% of what you're at today or having no job at all? To me, you don't have to be a brain surgeon to say I'll take that 90%."
And that is the point. In the good times, excess wages and benefits beyond what the private sector would normally offer can be sustained...at least for awhile. But times are no longer good. Bing makes no secret of how he feels; when asked if the city could become the first to declare bankruptcy, he responds, "I hope not, but I wouldn't rule it out if we don't get concessions from the unions."
He explains how the city can be turned around. First, make it business-friendly. "A city is a business," he explains. "It's a $3 billion plus business. The past administrations didn't understand that, and I think that's got us where we are." Voters realize that private "businesses create jobs," he says. "That's where wealth is come from, and for too long we've treated them like enemies."
Second, deregulate. "Take the licensing and permitting process that people have to go through," he explains. "I've heard nothing but war stories. So I'm focusing on how we can help businesses cut through the red tape in city government. As an entrepreneur, if you have to spend all of your time trying to get licensing and permits . . . guess what you do? You're going somewhere else. We've got to make Detroit a place where businesses can make a profit again," he says hopefully.
Third, change. "We have to be honest with ourselves and say we're no longer going to be the motor capital or the manufacturing capital of the world," Mr. Bing says. "But I think we can be the entertainment capital of the Midwest. We have casinos, great hotel accommodations, great restaurants, we're one of the few cities that has every professional sports team."
Fourth, safety first. "I think public safety is number one. A productive school system is number two. Because without either one of those being effective and efficient, you can forget everything else."
Fifth, school choice. "I'm for more choices. Getting families into the best educational system for their young people is critical." Schools aren't under his command; they are run by a school board that is dominated by the teacher's unions. "One of my goals is to have mayoral control" of the school system, he says.
Great ideas, but it won't be easy. The powerful unions have responded against Mayor Bing; refusing negotiations, threatening strikes, even attempting to get him thrown in jail. But when a normally liberal Democrat is telling you concessions need to be made or bankruptcy looms...well, people better pay attention.
When asked what made him a great basketball player (he's been named one of the 50 best in NBA history), he responds, "I think one of my best attributes was intelligence," he explains. "In a lot of cases that is what truly separates the superstars from the rest. That and I had a good work ethic.
"And I wasn't afraid to take the winning shot."